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African-Americans (to work in the shipyards)

  • Matilda Foster (1916–present)
  • Richmond, CA
  • UNITED STATES

Matilda Foster (1916—present), a shipyard worker during the war in Richmond, California

Matilda Foster was born in the small town of Lewisville, Ark., in 1916. Shortly after the United States entrered the war, Foster heard from her brother about well-paying jobs in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. In February 1944, Foster packed her belongings, booked passage on a train, and arrived in California four days later. She worked in the shipyards until the end of the war and continued to live in the Richmond area in the ensuing decades. In the 1940s she became involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1958 she married the deacon of a local Baptist church.

In March 2005, she was interviewed by the University of California’s Regional Oral History Office Berkeley as part of of an oral history project focusing on women who worked on the homefront to support the war effort. In the interview excerpted here, she tells of migrating to California in 1944.

Foster was interviewed by David Washburn and Tiffany Lok.

Interviewer:
Can you describe your life in Lewisville, Missouri?
Foster:
I was a real country girl. It was fine. As far as I knew, it wasn’t too bad. We had our own little farm and everything. After I got married — I was married twice before I left Arkansas at 22, 27, 26, I guess, yeah. Yeah, I was married five years to my first husband. I married when I was young. And three and a half years to my second one. And we separated. He came to California, and I went to St. Louis, Missouri. Because I had two sisters living in Illinois, East St. Louis, Illinois. And a cousin living in Missouri. So I liked Missouri better and I was lucky to get me a job after I got there.

After I got there, I cleaned a pressing shop first, I guess about a couple of months. Then I went to this factory and I got hired there and I worked there until I left and came here to California. The factory work was good, my brother told me I could make more money in California, the reason I changed.

Interviewer:
How long had your family been in Lewisville before that?
Foster:

How long had it been there? Well, I guess from before we was born and raised in that area. My mother came from Mississippi when she was a girl, she said. And she met my father and they married. My father died when I was 5 years old. My stepfather reared me. I married at a young age and everything. Was still there on the farm, but life was okay, farm life. We had food and everything. We raised most our food, you know. This was on the farm. Got along fine until Mr. Hoover, that’s the president, as they said, the bottom fell out of everything! [laughs] That’s why [people stopped working so much today?]!

Interviewer:
Who first came here, and how did you hear about Richmond before you came?
Foster:
Well, so many people from my home heard about the big government shipyard, the war was going on. And so many people heard about how much they paid. Some was scared to come because they thought blackouts and everything, after the war would break out. But some were anxious to come, and they come and they write people back to tell them how much money they was making and stuff like that. Because it didn’t matter about the ship because people were sleeping double and triple and everything. And some were working in the day and your friend was sleeping in the same area, in bed that you slept in at night.

Because, my brother, now he worked graveyard shift and then he worked another job in the daytime. [laughs] He worked two jobs! His wife never worked. He had 15 kids but he took care of all of those people, doctor bills and everything. And when he died, he left his family living good. Just a good manager I guess. Of course I never was able to have that kind of income and stuff like that. His third wife he married, right now, she living off of what he left her.

Interviewer:
You said people sent letters back. Did you receive one of those letters? What did it say?
Foster:
Yes. “Make more money, the jobs is paying more.” And better living conditions and all of that, it said, you know, which it was. And so even the government jobs, and having running hot water and lights and stuff like that were much better than you living in the country, you know. But the country life was fine while you were there.

Interviewer:
Describe what “better living conditions” means for somebody living in the South at that time compared with living here?
Foster:
Well, better living conditions, you be making more money where you can buy more things, you can buy a car. And buy a nice home and stuff like that. That was the “better” part. Of course some people never got able to buy no cars and stuff like that. But lots of people — we had our home, our family home. But we never — my father had things before he died. But he died young before I was 5 years old. He was of the class — Momma say, in his lifetime, what they had, he was the class of the wealthier Negro, my father. But he died when I was 5 years old and I was reared by my step-father. And then after years passed with lesser and — things get bad as I got older, and the different presidents, President Hoover is the one who really had things gone to the [penny?]. And that’s what I believe is going to happen before our President Bush get out of office. I really do. I have that feeling. In knowing and watching the Republicans. See, Republicans don’t like to pay high wages. But things now, they almost — the unions got ’em paying. And they don’t like that, you see. That’s why our own government here is trying to change the Constitution, to get rid of the unions. Because the union is the one making ’em pay. See, they rich people, but they still don’t want to pay lots of wages.

You could go and sit down in the restaurant and eat anywhere you wanted to out here. But you couldn’t do that at my home. In a white man’s restaurant, no, you couldn’t just go in any of them and have food. Some would take you and some wouldn’t. Because even when I went home one year, in 1948, I think it was, I went on a Greyhound bus. And so I stopped and went into a place right there at the bus station, the Greyhound bus station. They didn’t serve colored people. That’s what you used to call each other. And then in a place in Kansas, I think, yeah Lawrence, Kansas, I went in there. This was a Greyhound bus. You could take food out. But I if I couldn’t sit down and eat a meal there — they even had black folks working — I didn’t want it. So I just went for days and days without eating anything. And some of the white folks told the bus driver about it. I was the only black passenger on for a long time. And he came to me and said, “A lady tells me you haven’t been able to get food to eat.” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” He said, “You should have told me. I didn’t know that until I was told that by so many passengers here.” He said, “Well, from now on, anywhere we go, if you get turned down, you make sure you let me know.” So, Cheyenne Wyoming, we went in the place, ate, and other places, we sit down and ate. But that was in Nevada and Kansas and Wyoming.

When we were coming on the train in 1952 or ’55 I think it was, we went to a place in — it was Green River, Wyoming — we got off. The train had stopped for a while for us to get off because they had switched the diner, you know? And we went there and they said that they could give us certain things to take out but we couldn’t come in and sit down and eat like white folks was. So I didn’t want it then. I said, “No, if I can’t go in there and sit down and have a hamburger, I don’t want their food.”

It was one place on MacDonald, now, since you asked me, they said they didn’t take colored in there for eating. I forgot what the name of it was but I never went there. I had a place on Sixth and MacDonald, they used to have a little restaurant there. I forget what they called it, but they had some of the best roast beef you want to eat. And they was owned by white people. And the lady, I would order roast beef so much and apple pie and ice cream and stuff like that, she got where she knew me. When I come in, she ask me “What’s your dish today, roast beef?” [laughter] And same way with Mason down on MacDonald. I used to go there and have nice ice cream. I liked hot apple pie and ice cream. And all those places, they just run those place away after Richmond Redevelopment what tore Richmond up so bad, you know.

When I came to Richmond, I came on a Southern Pacific train. You know, it took us four straight days to come here then. I don’t know how it is now on the train. [laughs] I think it’s little better, don’t you think so? [laughs] Four days. Oh, you were so tired. We stopped and changed, when I left for St. Louis, I changed in Kansas City, Missouri. And I got a change again. When I came on to Santa Fe, that was east, west, one. But anyway, I think the next change was Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And then we changed somewhere in Arizona. And from that I remember we come on into … they changed so much, we had to change, they switched cars and things and when we got to somewhere, we had to change and take a bus into Bakersfield for something got wrong with the train, that’s when I first came here. We took a bus into Baker — yeah, we used to have a big train station there, Santa Fe, you know about that?

Interviewer:
Were you traveling alone or with someone else?
Foster:
I traveled alone. I didn’t have no companion, but I met lots of people, friends and things, people I got acquainted with on my way. Was traveling out here, coming out here from different areas, you know, the South.

Interviewer:
What were your conversations on the train? What did you say to one another? Were you excited, or were you fearful?
Foster:
Uh-uh. No, just ordinary people, riding, going to a place we didn’t know about, but we’d talked. Families had written and told you so much about it until you feel like you know part of it, some of it. Because my brother and others was calling and writing, telling us how they were doing and everything. So I met one lady-friend, we wrote each other a long time after I rode this train. We was companions for a long time, riding, coming West. I think she was coming to Vallejo, California.

Interviewer:
Miss Foster, you know what, I don’t know if I believe that you weren’t ever fearful, because when I travel somewhere new, I get fearful. You were never fearful that things were going to work out for the best or that things weren’t going to work out? What were you thinking?
Foster:
Well, I was hoping that it would work out for the best, at least I’d be making more money. That’s what I was looking forward to.

And about meeting people, on our way, we could go into diners and eat. But the first time I went back home to Arkansas, we did alright until we got into the Mason Dixon line—that’s what they used to call it, the white man, you know? When you cross over Kansas we could sit anywhere on the train we want to sat. But when we got to the Mason-Dixon Line, they put you in the back seat and drew a black curtain. You had one long seat in the back of the bus or the train. And then they had two more little side seats. And that was it. That was all the black folks had to sit on all the way through the South. It’s not that way now. You can sit anywhere you want to. At least you could last time I took a train home, I think in ’55. And the other times I took the plane home.



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